Times Record: Dropping out of China (April 23, 2013)

Mainers love their state, their heritage and their culture. That’s as it should be. But when that worldview becomes protectionist or provincial, or when it deprives kids of opportunities to compete and prosper in a global society — for whatever reason — we need to re-evaluate our thinking.

Several years ago, School Administrative District 75 was on the forefront of progressive educational thought when it leveraged grants to start up a program in Chinese language and culture. As reported in today’s editions by Times Record staff writer Darcie Moore, kids who have graduated Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham with knowledge of Chinese earned the ability to study abroad, to succeed globally, and to understand what everyone agrees is a nation whose economic growth will define the 21st century.

Mt. Ararat High School alum Dan Van Note is proof of the importance of keeping a worldview when haggling over school funding. He started taking Chinese the first year at Mt. Ararat. Now a junior at Davidson College — one of the nation’s pre-eminent foreign language schools — he got to pursue his studies in Shanghai, on scholarship.

 

“Chinese is one of the most important world languages for our students to learn, and it is important that we find the most effective means to encourage that learning,” he told The Times Record.

There’s a growing awareness of the importance of teaching Chinese. For example, Stephen Schwarzman, a billionaire fund manager, just set up a $300 million scholarship fund for students to attend China’s esteemed Tsinghua University.

Schwarzman said he wants to spur greater comprehension of China by students here and in other Western nations, modeling it on a program established in 1902 by Cecil J. Rhodes at the University of Oxford to facilitate a better understanding between the United States and Europe.

It’s nice when philanthropists step in with private funds, but they should augment — not replace — the public’s responsibility to prepare all our kids for a global society.

SAD 75’s educational foresight and vision — once a selling point — is endangered. But it doesn’t cost much — as little as $30,000, it turns out — to help run a program that has a global view and few detractors.

In fighting the routine funding battles every Maine school district is being forced to wage, SAD 75 must be careful not to make itself just another place where kids come and go, with no unique program that differentiates it.

When people consider where they want to make a living, or where they want to live, educational quality — measured not just in test scores, but in the care and concern officials have for their students, evidenced not just in buildings, but in the content of what goes on inside them — makes some communities more attractive than others.

“If we continue to cut what we have,” School board Chairwoman Joanne Rogers said, “we’re going to lose what we stand for.”

Here’s hoping Rogers can help restore the district’s commitment — rare and vanishing in Maine — to equip its students with the knowledge it takes to succeed in a global economy, and to send a message that $30,000 is a small price to pay for educational quality and opportunity for our children.

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